Foucault in Northfield: Birmingham’s reformed pubs

The Black Horse, Northfield [Birmingham Mail]

As I mentioned recently, apparently historians love pubs more than anything. I was particularly intrigued by a discussion with Nathan Booth at the Urban History conference in Cambridge about the internal layout of pubs in his recently-completed thesis on Stalybridge – I hadn’t given this a lot of thought, focusing mainly on the streetscape. So I was intrigued to come across the idea of “reformed pubs” particularly as it seems a very distinctly Midlands sort of story.

There’s a pretty easy link to make between the Birmingham of Chamberlain, the Civic Gospel, the “best governed city in the world” and pub reform. The typical local pub everywhere was a small, hyper-local affair. In my own area of study in Wolverhampton there were at least 35 in just the Stafford Street area, ranging from the larger Black Horse Inn at the main junction, with its accommodation and stabling, to the front-room beerhouse – literally someone’s front room in which drinkers would share a family’s private spaces. Licenses for these became increasingly easy to acquire during the early 19th century but became later a subject for the increased moral anxiety of the Victorian civic world,. Pubs were the sites of the deepest fears of some, of drunkenness, licentiousness, etc. – especially in the face of Temperance campaigns.

Licensing applications began to be refused, and early town planning arrangements made on the basis of how many pubs there already were in a neighbourhood. This was enshrined in law in the 1904 Licensing Act, which saw breweries collaborate to negotiate with the magistrates to surrender around 1000 licenses in Birmingham – perhaps any early form of the agglomeration which lead to “takeover madness” later in the century. Birmingham was ahead of its time though – the city had been trying to find a way to reform pub culture since at least 1894, when Arthur Chamberlain was made chair of the Licensing Justices.

The Red Lion, Kings Heath [Birmingham Conservation Trust]

First to be considered was the external layout of the pub. Rather than the small, converted home or poky, urban pub, the suggestion was made that pubs ought to be large, airy, ornate spaces. The Pevsner city guide considers the gabled pubs designed by H.T. Buckland to be the forerunner of this, with Birmingham’s architectural moment in the sun coming with the Red Lion in King’s Heath. Designed by C.E. Bateman in 1905, it’s constructed in Cotswold stone in the new “Brewer’s Tudor” style – in fact, an idealised village pub. The healthiness, fresh air and cheerful community of village life are all embodied here, perhaps designed by architects unfamiliar with the grind and social problems of actual rural life.

Fox & Goose, Washwood Heath [source]

Others soon followed before the disruption of war, such as the Samson & Lion in Small Heath, and the half-timbered Fox & Goose at Washwood Heath, the latter the design of Holland W. Hobbiss, whose pubs, churches and other buildings litter the suburbanised South of Birmingham. Other Hobbiss designs include Christ Church, Ward End; Lodge Hill Crematorium; and St Francis Hall and the Guild at University of Birmingham – this latter features sculptures and bas-reliefs by his regular partner, William Bloye.

It was the interwar period when this sort of pub really took off though, with the increase in motoring being a particular driver (excuse the pun) for ‘destination’ pubs – larger, family-friendly affairs with recreational facilities such as bowling greens. Perhaps the best-known example is the Black Horse in Northfield, designed by Francis Goldborough in 1929 and now restored as a ‘Spoons. Its car park was designed for charabancs and coaches as well as cars, and its bowling green and club house remains (perhaps built ignoring the slightly disreputable drinking-and-gambling history of crown green bowling; or perhaps not – it still had to turn a profit).

The Black Horse c.1920 [William Dargue]

The Blackie was built for Davenport’s Brewery, who had already taken an interesting approach to pub space by branching very successfully into home deliveries. As was common, an older pub of the same name on the site was demolished and the license transferred to the huge new building placed on the site in full Brewer’s Tudor regalia. It was designed with nods to late medieval and Tudor architecture on purpose, to give it the effect of gradual historical development – however I think it’s fair to say that it stuck out a mile then, as it still does.

Pubs in late-Victorian West Midland towns tended to be either small, poky affairs with snugs, separate rooms etc. Apart from architecture, the major innovation in reformed pubs was the central servery area meaning that those behind the bar could see the several large internal spaces from wherever they were. This was true at the Black Horse, for instance: from the central servery one could see the Public Bar, the Mixed Smoking Room, the Gentlemen’s Smoking Room, and the Dining or Assembly Room.

The interior of the Black Horse, showing the key design features – central servery, mock-Tudor ceilings, oak-panelled walls [J.D. Wetherspoon]

It’s interesting to see the formalised gender division here – one space acceptable for polite conversation suitable for mixed company, another for male conversation while the women did… what?  What struck me the most here though was the similarities with another space-based solution to a problem of order: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, the prison from which the controllers can see all points equally well. This concept was taken up by Foucault in his thinking about power and space, and I’ve no doubt he would have very much enjoyed a visit to the Black Horse for just this purpose (although the reception of a bald, gay, French intellectual in 1980’s Northfield might have dampened his enthusiasm).

The Panopticon in action at Illinois State Penitentiary, Joliet (residence, of course, of Jake Blues for some time) []

In the Panopticon, prisoners are never sure whether they’re being viewed or not and they conduct themselves therefore under the assumption that they are being watched. Originating with the state (or at least from the top down), this “conduct of conduct” leads to the embodiment of regulation within the prisoners themselves – the guards can remain aloof and somewhat uninvolved as just a representation of power. The interaction of state with private concern (like Davenport’s, or other local brewers like William Butler in Wolverhampton) created this same desire for regulation of space and conduct in the world of pubs.

Creating such a pub space attempts to replace the existing working-class experience of space, communality and pub with a more middle-class, morally-self-governing experience. The possibility of being seen rules out a lot of the illicit things that civic leaders in particular assumed were inextricably bound up in the working-class pub. It also reinforces gender experiences seen as ‘proper’, and the idea of ‘rational recreation‘, in which sedate sports like bowls played their part.

It might be more appropriate then, to think of these not as ‘reformed’ pubs but as ‘reforming’ pubs, in which state legislation (like the licensing acts or Lloyd George’s attempts at nationalisation) colludes with private interests (a working-class seeking middle-class respectability is more likely to spend disposable income in a such an environment). Given the Black Horse’s later reputation (very much healed now, I should add) it wasn’t an entirely successful a programme – but that’s probably more to do with the changing social geography of Northfield than of the pub’s architecture. Space comes in different scales after all – a spatial fix often falls short when wider geographical implications of geography aren’t considered.

One thought on “Foucault in Northfield: Birmingham’s reformed pubs

  1. For an old Brummie, exiled by marriage in the Black Country, the title and the picture of the Black Horse sent me into a nostalgic mood. Had a few pints in there. Scroll down to the Red Lion, just one in there. Then to the Fox and Goose, much nearer my old watering holes, but what’s the Illinois State Penitentiary doing here?

    Any road back to the top and the title “Foucault in Northfield: Birmingham’s reformed pubs”. I get a picture in the mind that Northfield have erected a tribute to the number 11 bus, the Outer Circle. A huge pendulum that swings with the natural movement of the earth and as time passes points to the next pub along route. A memory of the days when your mom could put you on the bus at the Crown and Cusion at Perry Bar and tell the driver “shove him off at the King’s Head and his aunt will see to him!”

    Yes Brummies could wangle the 26 odd miles into the 24 hours, even find a place next to “The Smithy” for the Big House at Winson Green.

    Oh well back to reality. The Black Horse has been reformed by JDW, and I have to check out this other Foucault.

    Liked by 1 person

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